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The religious in India take leap of faith, tech style

A woman is making an offering at the gate of Karni Mata Temple. It is also known as the Temple of Rats.
Frank Bienewald | LightRocket | Getty Images
A woman is making an offering at the gate of Karni Mata Temple. It is also known as the Temple of Rats.

India's $30 billion religious and spirituality market is full of gurus, temples and pilgrimages, and now tech entrepreneurs are set to take a leap of faith.

Three years ago, on a visit to the Karni temple during the 'Navratri' festival, 26-year-old engineer Goonjan Mall discovered a problem: for many, the difficulty of getting 'prasad' ruined the religious experience.

Prasad is a food offering made to Hindu Gods and distributed amongst devotees who seek divine blessing. At many Indian temples the devotee experience is spoiled by long queues, pestering touts, crowd mismanagement and the recycling of 'prasad.'

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Mall came up with a solution: online ordering. "The idea that religion must be simplified and technology was the perfect tool came in a flash," he said.

The senior analyst at Bain & Company quit his job and launched OnlinePrasad.com – a website that enables devotees to get prasad from more than 50 temples delivered to their homes. They can also organize a pooja – a prayer ritual – at any temple and buy any of the 300 religious symbols and products.

Onlineprasad.com now boasts over 2,500 daily visitors, has 120,000 Facebook followers, backing from angel investors and mentoring from startup accelerator Morpheus.

Bringing faith and technology together

As India's religious market grows entrepreneurs are using technology to tap into niche segments and differentiate themselves from competitors.

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Online portals like Onlineprasad.com are aimed at the multi-billion dollar market that has been traditionally exploited by spiritual gurus and religious trusts, offering customized pilgrimages, rites and rituals and personal accessories.

ProudUmmah.com, for instance, focuses on Islamic pilgrimages to Mecca. Launched by ex-Google employee Abid Khan in Hyderabad, the site sells kits designed for the pilgrimage, provides information on associated rites and rituals and facilitates travel through a network of over 1,200 registered agents.

"The hajj and Umrah market is growing at 6-7 percent a year and more than 7 million people take the pilgrimage every year, yet it was so hard to get the products or even information at one place," said Khan.

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ProudUmmah.com closed over 800 orders in less than two years and enquires are growing. In 2012, it was voted the best internet startup by Silicon India.

Shubhpuja.com, another online portal, extends beyond religion offering astrology, numerology and vaastu consultations. The site was launched by Saumya Vardhan after a stint as technology consultant at KPMG and Ernst & Young. She now employs over 30 religious studies post-graduates and doctorate holders in a bid to bring top talent to the disorganized market.

"There is a need in the market for a more scientific and fact-based interpretation of religious and cultural tradition. We fill that gap," says Vardhan.

"Our vision is to bring standards of processes and pricing into the religion and spirituality market," said Vardhan, noting that practitioners were charging arbitrary rates when she began putting together her business model. Shubhpuja.com introduced a standard product pricing model.

With 40 million people in India expected to transact online, early movers like OnlinePrasad, ProudUmmah and ShubhPuja have a first-mover advantage.

Investment opportunity

Investors also see an attractive proposition in the religion market.

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"Here is a market that is both recession-proof and price inelastic. Unlike other sectors it is not cyclical because people resort to faith in good times and bad times. Also nobody negotiates with God!" said K Ganesh, an entrepreneur and early investor in OnlinePrasad.

"Religion is the most viral business in India and we are invested not just in terms of money but getting the right product out, setting pricing to service standards and connecting the dots between technology, resources and facilities that enable believers to reach out to their faith," said Nandini Guglani, co-founder of Morpheus, which invested $10,000 seed money into OnlinePrasad.

Challenges remain

While success has come quickly challenges remain.

The religious market demographic is largely composed of elderly people that are not tech-savvy; reaching them is difficult. Location is another issue as many clients live in villages and second and third-tier cities.

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However, entrepreneurs are unfazed.

OnlinePrasad uses SMS messaging to receive orders and market their products. For those without credit cards, it introduced payments at local banks and a drop ship model. ProudUmmah also refocused its international strategy to a more homebound one, given booming traffic from India.

"The challenge will always be to be innovative, move fast and stay ahead of the curve but the early success of disruptive technology in e-commerce in India suggests that the market is ripe for niche categories like spirituality," said Ganesh.

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